OPINION: Alaska needs a plan to save education

On Oct. 4, the Anchorage School Board convened to discuss how to address the Anchorage School District’s $68 million budget deficit. The meeting drew scores of attendees, many from my neighborhood of Government Hill. Young immersion students at Government Hill Elementary School delivered testimony in fluent Spanish asking the board not to cut the treasured immersion program, while others spoke to fears the district would close the school altogether.

I echo the sentiments of the students and parents who testified. I myself am a lifelong Alaskan and proud product of the Anchorage School District, having attended Inlet View Elementary, Central Junior High (now Central Middle), and West High (Go Eagles!).

What I’m seeing is that the big budget shortfall has got us all in a “Lord of the Flies” mentality — we are rushing to argue over which Anchorage schools should receive fewer resources. Instead, we need to talk about how to grow the pie.

To end the educational uncertainty, we need a comprehensive plan to save education in Alaska. Rather than fighting over scraps at school board meetings, we have to address structural issues with funding and teacher retention.

Specifically, there are four broad changes that need to be made to our education system:

Increase the Base Student Allocation (BSA) to account for inflation. Until this year, the BSA hadn’t been updated since fiscal 2017. In that time, inflation rose by more than 10%. We have been flat-funding education for years, leading to pink slips for teachers and larger class sizes for students. We cannot keep paying less into education and expecting more out of it.

End the school bond debt moratorium. Before 2015, the State of Alaska was helping local school districts like Anchorage’s by reimbursing between 60% and 70% of bonds that help repair critical school infrastructure. The state stopped that assistance, and now the Anchorage School District is stuck with hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance of schools. Every day, students are attending school inside buildings with leaky roofs, broken heating systems and structural damage that violates the Anchorage School District’s own standards.


Bring back the defined-benefit plan for teachers and other public employees. Right now, Alaska is the only state that doesn’t provide a pension or Social Security benefits to teachers. Right now, our best teachers are burnt out and leaving Alaska for states that value education and will invest in their careers. This makes it difficult to attract and retain quality educators in our own schools. It’s also expensive for taxpayers: Teacher turnover costs Alaska school districts $20 million per year, according to a study from the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER).

Lastly, we need to explore changes in the BSA’s District Cost Factor in addition to increasing the BSA. When the BSA formula was created, Anchorage was one of the least expensive areas of the state to live in and provide schools. That relatively low cost in Anchorage then was reflected in the District Cost Factor, an element of the BSA that allocates funding among districts around the state. Changes in the cost of living in various places in Alaska may mean, however, that Anchorage students -- possibly along with students in some other districts -- are getting far less in funding than they deserve. It has been years since the last study measuring cost of living was conducted. We should get another study of the District Cost Factor and then act accordingly to ensure school districts are getting their fair share of education funding.

With these four planks, we can save our education system and stop our students from falling behind. The Legislature needs to act on these changes, and I plan on leading the way if elected to office. For our students, and for our future, we must invest in education.

Cliff Groh is a lifelong Alaskan, the co-creator of the Permanent Fund dividend, a veteran attorney, and a candidate for House District 18 in North Anchorage.

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